SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Learning how to learn with real-world problems

Feb. 1, 2009
Project PHOTON PBL is designed to meet the challenge of educating a workforce prepared to adapt to the complex and rapidly changing demands of the 21st century high-tech environment.


Are students acquiring the problem-solving and critical thinking skills needed in today's scientific workplace? In an initiative designed to meet the challenge of educating a workforce prepared to adapt to the complex and rapidly changing demands of the 21st century high-tech environment, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) has created Project PHOTON PBL. Funded by a three-year grant from the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the project uses Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to teach students how to solve real-world "Challenges" contributed by industry and research partners.

In PBL, students "learn how to learn" by collaboratively solving real-world problems that may have a number of possible solutions. Unlike traditional lecture-based instruction, PBL shifts the responsibility for learning onto the students, engaging them in a process in which the instructor serves as a consultant, guiding students to resources and providing information as needed. PBL begins with a problem scenario presented in the context in which it is to be solved. After student teams collaboratively analyze the problem, they engage in a period of self-directed learning. Students then reconvene to brainstorm, assess and evaluate their problem solutions. They test and reformulate possible solutions as needed, often repeating the cycle several times to solve a single problem.

"The ability to adapt learning to new situations is the cornerstone of lifelong learning," says Fenna Hanes, PHOTON PBL Principal Investigator and Project Manager. "Research shows that compared to traditional lecture-based instruction, PBL improves student understanding and retention of ideas, critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills." While PBL has been used extensively in other fields, including medical education, business, law and education, beginning in the 1970s, it is only beginning to be used as a tool in engineering and technology education.

The goals of the PHOTON PBL project are to:
•Create eight multimedia problem-based Challenges and instructional resources in photonics and technology to complement PHOTON curriculum and laboratory materials. The materials are aligned to academic and industry skill standards.

•Recruit and train high school and community college science and engineering instructors from 16 institutions to implement, assess and evaluate the problem-based Challenges in classrooms with their students.

•Conduct quantitative and qualitative research on the efficacy of PBL in engineering technician education.

•Outreach and disseminate the field tested problem-based Challenges and research findings to high schools, community colleges and four-year colleges and universities that offer technology programs.

Forty-seven secondary and post-secondary instructors were selected to participate in a one-week professional development workshop held at the Boston University's renowned Photonics Center and to field-test the curriculum between the fall 2007 and spring 2009 semesters. The OSA Foundation provided funding for the workshop and sponsored two teachers from Romania. Workshop participants were guided by a National Advisory Committee (NAC) composed of leaders in industry and education who provide direction regarding curriculum requirements and skill sets needed for photonics technicians in industry and/or strategies for including PBL principles in case study Challenges.

The eight PBL Challenges, developed for both academic and industry settings, are designed to be completed in three to four weeks. They address photonics applications such as environmental sensing, machine vision, optical science/systems, lighting and illumination, precision measurements, imaging, laser materials processing, laser beam diagnostics, renewable energy and medical diagnostics, and link to the highly successful NSF-funded PHOTON and PHOTON2 curricula and laboratory materials, which have been disseminated at more than 60 secondary and postsecondary institutions across the United States. Because the Challenges are used at high school and college levels, and to address the anxiety some students experience when moving from instructor-led instruction models to an open-ended, self-directed learning environment, each Challenge has been designed with three levels of difficulty: Level 1 (Instructor Led – Highly Structured), Level 2 (Instructor Guided – Moderately Structured) and Level 3 (Instructor as Consultant – Open-Ended). This allows students and instructors to adjust to the new instructional mode over time.

"Problems in the real world are often poorly defined and ambiguous," says Hanes. "Problem-based learning prepares students to thrive in real-world settings."

The PHOTON PBL grant is the fourth in a series of NSF grants awarded to NEBHE to strengthen optics-photonics curricula in secondary schools and community colleges in New England and across the country. Co-principal investigators are Professor Judy Donnelly (Three Rivers Community College, Norwich, CT), Professor Nicholas Massa (Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA) and Professor Michele Dischino (Central Connecticut State University). Challenges are disseminated in collaboration with industry associations such as the OSA Foundation SPIE, and others, through education and technology associations, NSF/ATE projects and Centers, and via the PHOTON PBL website. For further information, contact Fenna Hanes at [email protected].

The OSA Foundation, created in 2002, is dedicated to supporting programs that advance youth science education, provide optics education and resources to underserved populations, provide career and professional development resources, and support awards & honors that recognize technical and business excellence. Contributions to the Foundation, a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, are deductible as provided by law. All donors receive special recognition and acknowledgments, unless they request to be anonymous. Donations to the OSA Foundation are matched dollar-for-dollar by the Optical Society. For more information, please contact the OSA Foundation staff via telephone: +1.202.416.1421 or e-mail: [email protected].

Grace Klonoski is the senior director, foundation, membership & education services, for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036; email: [email protected]; Web site:

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